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Monday, December 29, 2008

White Would Be Better

Being Overseas Chinese in China has numerous advantages. Clothes here fit me better than they do larger foreign friends, I escape the constant ogling and unwanted attention that others face and, if I were to choose to do so, I could probably settle into a more permanent life here with greater ease. But most recently, on multiple occasions, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of more racist discrimination than I ever experienced in the United States. The irony being, of course, that it’s from people of my own ethnicity. Chinese people are passing me over because I’m Chinese.

When going in to apply for teaching positions at a nearby English school, we were informed that there were no full-time positions available at that branch, contrary to what an Australian friend had told us the day before. When another friend, who is Caucasian, went into their office a few days after to enquire about openings…what do you know?! A position had just opened up again.

Soon afterward, I received a text message from a musician friend, Tim, looking for other foreigners to play some concerts around Christmas. There exists in China what we laowai refer to as “foreign monkey” work: where foreigners are paid (very handsomely, by Chinese standards) to play music, dance around in a club, model, and do promotion for businesses. The main requirement for such work is not talent or experience—most of the work is done by English teachers or foreign students--but ethnicity. Work does exist for Blacks and non-white foreigners: a woman working in entertainment showed me a video of some Black friends performing “traditional African dance” in stereotypical African clothing for a local event. But most of the time, they want White folks.

In the case of this Christmas gig, I told Tim that I’d be interested, but to check with the agent if I would be able to play. Though Chinese have tended not to say: “Whites only” up front, at this point I figure it saves both parties more trouble if I, in a nation as supposedly proudly nationalistic as China, to admit that I, though born and raised in the West, am--should I be ashamed?—in fact, yellow. Tim called back, apologizing for his agent, who said that “they already had one Chinese,” and that they were not interested in another.

“Maybe in a few years they will be more interested in how well people can play their instruments, rather than just having any White guy who doesn’t even know how to play,” Tim, a German who plays drums, said, trying to console me.

“It’ll take a lot longer than that,” I told him.

It can feel odd, discovering that the time when my skin color tends to matter least is when hanging out with foreign friends, despite being the only non-White one. Within our small bubble of liberal, college-educated Western outlooks, we laugh at the absurdity of such situations and consider at what point does the “foreign monkey” work become too close to corporate whoredom. One friend drew the line on a “Foreign Santa” competition sponsored by a giant Wal-Mart-wielding mall, which invited foreigners to dress as Santa and say “a phrase in Chinese (!)” for cash prizes.

Until recently, I’ve considered this mostly at the behest of consumers. I don’t think shifting the blame on to society relieves a nation of its racism, but in some way, it softens the blow of this now all-too-familiar snubbing. English companies charge extremely high rates, and for parents shelling out hard-earned cash toward their child’s future American degree, they want a charming, handsome young foreigner teaching little Kevin how to pronounce “these and those.” Somebody from one of those rich, developed Western nations. That somebody, to their minds, is White.

An American recruiter for one of the major English companies in China told me over brunch of a particularly tough new visa officer in Dalian, in northeastern China. Whereas the requirements for English teachers were higher than normal there—China is a haven for less qualified teachers: a bachelors degree, a proper TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, two years of education experience—there was one, surprising new kicker. You have to be White. African-American, Singaporean…Overseas Chinese? “Forget about it!,” he told me. This was the first case in many years here that he’d seen such racism at the official level.

Whiteness, as we know well the world over, holds a great deal of privilege. And while many of the foreigners who come to China bring with them some sort of “global village” openness and a desire to break down racial and national distinctions, we quickly realize how differently, and in many ways how deeply conservative, Chinese society regards race.

So what is one to do, as an Australian-born Chinese seeking a piece of the action, as so many foreigners are currently doing, in this supposed future world super power? Study as I do, my Mandarin is a long way from fluency. Beyond that, also, is the remarkable cultural chasm that, though shrinking, still exists between Westerners and Chinese. (Try as I could, I struggled unsuccessfully to get the Western concept of “muzak” through to my normally savvy tutor.) Simply put, there’s no going around it: I’m not from China. But, whereas I will never pass as Chinese, I’m not quite foreign enough either.

There’s little point in trying to single-handedly change the mindsets of 1.3 billion people: that’s not my job, and besides, people trying to change things in China who aren’t officials tend to walk on thin ice.

Part of me is ready to go home: to return to the comfort of fluent self-expression and Fox serials and, though we love to bag “PC” culture, good old anti-racism legislature. And yet, with the West’s decidedly uninviting job market, and having already gotten this far with what is, by all accounts, a difficult language to learn, I continue to stick it out. It’s hard to ignore, as well, the sheer leisure and freedom that being a foreign teacher in China provides: many jobs offer comfortable salaries on two days of work per week.

Still, there are moments at which I simply shake my head. This afternoon, my company called to invite me to a celebratory dinner, asking that I also invite a foreign friend. My girlfriend—a Canadian-born Chinese—piped up: “I’m foreign!”

“Can she be ethnically Chinese?” I asked.

“Uh…White would be better,” my Chinese colleague informed me. At this point, more out of humor than anger, I prod a little further.

“Can they be black, or brown…or yellow?” I continued, with perhaps a hint of ridicule.

“Um, I have to ask the boss,” he replied.

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